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Hard to Say I’m Sorry

Will Belgium’s apology over the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba trigger a re-evaluation of colonialism?

February 26, 2002

Will Belgium's apology over the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba trigger a re-evaluation of colonialism?

It was a solemn affair. Belgium’s foreign minister Louis Michel apologized on behalf of his country to François Lumumba, the son of the Congo’s first Prime Minister. Forty years ago, Belgium’s intelligence forces and the CIA contrived the murder of that nation’s only elected leader in the post-colonial period.

Apparently, they feared that Lumumba leaned too far to the left. At the height of the Cold War era, in a country with vast natural resources, that was reason enough to end his life.

The apology is a step in the right direction. Yet, it is curious that Belgium can express regret for a 40-year-old crime, but still cannot apologize for more distant misdeeds involving many more murders.

Enter King Leopold II (1835 – 1909), who managed to get the Berlin Conference 1884 to entrust him with Congo’s government. Under the pretence of bringing education, Christianity and general improvement, he ran Congo literally as “Leopold, Inc.”

As King Leopold and his agents drained the country economically, as many as 10 million Congolese perished. When the scale of Leopold’s looting became finally apparent, international pressure forced him to hand over the Congo to the Belgian government.

It was a startling gesture when other European colonial powers were not squeamish about mistreating the ‘natives.’

Not that Belgium is alone in being ‘apology impaired.’ Hardly any former colonial power lacks skeletons in its closet.

In 1998, former German President Roman Herzog rejected suggestions for reparations to paid to Namibia for his country’s slaughter of the Herero people between 1904 and 1907.

Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II did not apologize to India for the 1919 Amritsar massacre. It also did not help when her husband Prince Philip questioned the number of victims engraved in a plaque near the massacre site on their visit marking the 50th anniversary of India’s independence in 1997.

The list is long: Dutch treatment of the Indonesian people, Spain’s record in Latin America, France in Indo-China and so forth.

Against this background, it would be nice to think of Belgium’s apology as a start. If it triggers a re-evaluation of colonial rule it might ultimately serve a higher purpose than righting a political murder after 40 years. It might constitute a general acceptance that it is wrong for one people to rule over another.